Thursday, August 13, 2020

How Much Stress Can One Man Take?

By Jim Napier
Canadian private investigator Sam Jones has had a difficult life, and recently it’s only gotten worse. A 42-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, Sam had lost an arm in that conflict. Returned from the fighting and now a civilian again, he is in a Toronto coffee bar trying to come to terms with what he just saw, and what he just did. Noticing spots of blood on his sleeve, he goes to the washroom to get rid of them. The blood isn’t his, but he knows police will soon be searching for him, and wanting an explanation for the two dead people—one a mere boy—who are lying in the basement of a house Sam vacated not long ago.

As we learn in Mike Knowles’ latest novel, Running from the Dead (ECW Press), Sam is bothered as well by thoughts of what he will tell the dead boy’s mother. Six years earlier he’d set out to find that youngster, hoping to bring him back to her alive. Today, though, he realizes he’s failed. That, more than anything else, concerns him greatly.

While he is scrubbing the blood from his shirt, Sam notices a bit of graffiti containing a cryptic message near a hinge on the bathroom door: I know you are, but what am I? A belligerent challenge, or a cry for help? Sheena, a 20-something tattooed barista with an attitude, is tending the coffee bar counter. She is unable to help Sam identify the author of those words, so the task falls to him. Remorseful over the fact that he failed to find the boy alive and restore him to his mother, Sam is driven to try at least to identify the obviously troubled graffiti writer and maybe lend that person some help.

Thus begins the odyssey of a good man caught up in an evil world. Before it ends, Sam will enlist the improbable aid of an aging ex-bank robber as he navigates the dark streets of Toronto, where vulnerable young women are easy prey for men who cannot see beyond their own twisted lives; and he’ll do his best to remain on the run from cops wanting to question him about those bodies in the basement.

As if all that weren’t enough weight upon his already burdened shoulders, while Sam grapples with a distressed young woman who might not want to be found—and might not want to be helped—he’s also anxious about his looming meeting with the dead boy’s mother. And he’s having to care for his own 80-year-old father, who is in a residential care home, unable to speak following a stroke.

Running from the Dead is the layered and nuanced eighth novel by Hamilton, Ontario, writer Knowles. It is a highly charged tale, marked by crackling dialogue and leavened only by brooding narration and a deft use of metaphor, as in this passage, which finds Sam comparing his race to evade the police with the behavior of sharks:
Sharks needed to remain in a constant state of motion in order to breathe. It didn’t matter how much water was around—if the shark stopped swimming it would suffocate in the middle of the ocean … [F]or the same reason he was driving across the city on a Monday—it kept him from stopping. If he stopped, if he lost momentum, it would mean confronting the inevitable, and ... Jones had a week before the inevitable became unavoidable. Seven days—his own Shark Week—unless he stopped moving.
There are also moments of dark humor scattered about this yarn, as when Sam is asked how he happened to lose his arm and he replies, “I didn’t lose it. I know exactly where it is.”

Readers in search of an uncompromising chronicle of our troubled times, exquisitely told, will find much to admire in Knowles’ new book, and will, I suspect, be drawn afterward to his earlier writing.

Highly recommended.

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Since 2005 Jim Napier’s book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel, Legacy, was published in the spring of 2017, and its sequel, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the late summer of 2020. He can be reached at

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